Monthly Archives: November 2019

Looking Up

I love Thanksgiving. I always have. Yes, there is a genuine affinity for the food… The traditional dishes: turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, roasted winter vegetables, pumpkin pie, are all so good! They say that of all our senses, the olfactory system of taste and smell connects us to our earliest memories. And if I relax and conjure the scent of roasting turkey, and the taste of fresh -made pan gravy, I am right there, in a cloud of delight.

But certainly, there’s more than the meal. There’s more than a football game. It’s all about gratitude. We so easily fall into the rut of taking everything in our lives for granted. But that’s a trap that can create an expectation that somehow we deserve whatever we want. We can grow callous under the protective attitude of entitlement. But no one “deserves” anything. No one is guaranteed a fast track to love or attention or affluence.

Some of us have lucked into be borne at the right time, in the right place, and into the right family. It’s nothing anyone earned. It’s the luck of the draw. Some of us have worked hard to attain a level of comfort that we’ve extended to those we love. Some have earned enough money to share it generously with causes and places dear to them.

No one deserves any more or any less than anyone else. Yet there is a gravitational pull towards exclusivity, to judge those with less money or fame or privilege. And as we divide the world into us and them, we lose sight of the fundamental existential truth to which we’re attached from birth: that we are finite and that we share this impermanent state of being with every other human on earth. Or, as George Harrison put it:

But how do I explain

When not too many people

Can see we’re all the same

And because of all their tears

Your eyes can’t hope to see

The beauty that surrounds them

Now, isn’t it a pity

On this Thanksgiving I’m pledging to look up from my plate and see the beauty that surrounds us. I’m going to try to disengage from the painful arc of impeachment news. I will attempt to put down the reports of a sitting Israeli prime minister’s multiple indictments for bribery. I will even try to avert my gaze from the apocalyptic climate change reports and debates and Boston traffic and… so forth.

Looking up does not mean abandoning a just cause. It means seeing the perfect beauty of the Universe and embracing existence itself – this wonderful, cosmic little life I have. Looking up and appreciating the greatest gifts of life and freedom reminds me of why justice is worth fighting for. That life is not always utterly absurd. There is meaning and purpose in the struggle. Goodness needs as many allies as we can muster because the good is for all of us to nurture and share.

Have a terrific Thanksgiving. Look up.

Prayers and Their Meaning

Jewish prayer evokes all kinds of feelings. Sometimes it’s all about the familiar mantra-like experience of reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish. Few people know what the words mean, or that there is no mention – no mention! – of death or dying in the prayer. Yet there is something profoundly moving about saying these Hebrew and Aramaic words – the sound, the rhythm, the cadence, the response of the congregation. The meaning of reciting the Kaddish transcends the meaning of the words.

Recently I’ve run into a Jewish prayer dilemma. A standard part of our liturgy has begun to bother me. It evokes some ire;  it stirs me in a very disquieting way. I love the prayer in Hebrew.  I enjoy chanting it in a variety of different melodies.  When I’m singing along, I don’t focus on the Hebrew – at all. The transcendence of the music lifts me, puts me in a place of calm and Shabbat. It’s the Jewish equivalent of zen.

But lately, I’ve gotten hung up on the English. I’m not quibbling over the authenticity of the interpretation or the grammar. In fact the problem has to do with leaving the melody and entering the meaning. What follows is the text that so bothers me.

Grant us peace, Your most precious gift, O Eternal Source of peace, and give us the will to proclaim its message to all the peoples of the earth. Bless our country, that it may always be a stronghold of peace, and its advocate among the nations. May contentment reign within its border, health and happiness within its homes. Strengthen the bonds of friendship among the inhabitants of all lands, and may the love of Your name hallow every home and every heart. Blessed is the Eternal God, the Source of peace.

What’s so problematic? The English is so passive. The entire supposition that peace is something that God can give us if we ask nicely. Or that peace is a gift we get at Dave and Buster’s after we win enough tickets playing Skee-Ball.

Peace does not come from God. It is not some divine, ethereal category of being. Peace, contentment, and the bonds of friendship are not from heaven. They are ideas that so many many people have desperately fought for and died to achieve, for themselves as well as their family, their friends, their community.

Suggesting that God doles out peace demeans the people who have tried to create it. Asking God to strengthen the bonds of friendship among the inhabitants of all lands is the ultimate cop-out.

It’s up to us to make peace. God may inspire us to do the work. God may remind us that there is divinity in every living being. But God doesn’t grant peace any more than God heals the sick.

God is the great presence that undergirds our sense of purpose. We were created to do that which must be done. The story of manna was inspiring, but no one gets fed without effort. There is no free lunch.

My English version of Sim Shalom or Shalom Rav or Oseh Shalom is more like, “Dear God, remind us that we are the authors of peace. Help us, with your love, to gather the broken pieces and put them together. Help us to feel strong in the face of weakness, to rise to the occasion when we see evil, to extend ourselves to others who may not believe what I believe but who deserve compassion and empathy.”

I’ll keep singing the Hebrew words. Whenever I sing these prayers, I will focus on the music, on the soulfulness of the moment. But if I think about the words and their meaning, I know I can never again wish for God to make peace. It’s almost a shanda, a shameful thing to request. It goes from prayer to an empty gesture.

 The good news and the bad: it’s all up to us.  There’s no divine reckoning.  No Messiah.  No outstretched arm of God enforcing anything. No free parking. We’re all we’ve got. 

Remembering Rabin

I don’t remember where I was when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated 24 years ago last Monday. But the shock wave at the initial announcement, and then the revulsion and disbelief that he was murdered by a Jew, an observant Israeli of the far right… That, I can never forget. 
Rabin had signed the Oslo Accord earlier that year and was preparing the nation for the inevitable challenges that would come along with making peace. The murderer, Yigal Amir, claimed that Jewish Law permitted him to kill the prime minister. In Amir’s eyes and the eyes of his fellow ultra nationalists, Rabin was a rodef, a dangerous pursuer. Therefore in their twisted logic, they had the right to protect Jewish lives by taking him out. Amir said he shot Rabin in self defense of the Jewish people.The courts did not agree, and Amir was sentenced to life without parole. At his sentencing, Amir proclaimed that he had no remorse and that he had done his duty to the Jewish people. 
The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin had far-reaching consequences in Israel and the rest of the world. In a very real way, Amir and his fellow far-right community, murdered peace. It was the end of a certain kind of hopefulness, and a recognition that a new force was erupting. It was a force that actively and openly disdained the rights of Palestinians in Israel and vehemently opposed any notion of a two-state solution. Bibi Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud party, embraced the movement and then led the opposition to any real and lasting peace. Prior to Rabin’s death, rallies organized by Likud and other right-wing groups featured depictions of Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform, or in the crosshairs of a gun. Protesters compared the Labor party to the Nazis and Rabin to Adolf Hitler and chanted, “Rabin is a murderer” and “Rabin is a traitor”. In July 1995, Netanyahu led a mock funeral procession featuring a coffin and hangman’s noose at an anti-Rabin rally where protesters chanted, “Death to Rabin”. 
The chief of internal security, Carmi Gillon, then alerted Netanyahu of a plot on Rabin’s life and asked him to moderate the protests’ rhetoric, which Netanyahu declined to do. Netanyahu denied any intention to incite violence. But one doesn’t have to start a fire to cause a panic and a stampede to the exits.
When I heard about Rabin I felt that sharp pain of loss and despair that has become de rigueur for baby boomers. With every political assassination, from John F Kennedy to Martin Luther King to Bobby Kennedy, we watched dreams die along with the visionaries who spoke of them. We have seen, time and again, the triumph of hatred and violence over the fragile beginnings of peace and understanding. It’s happened so often that we have grown inured to the chipping away at new alliances, the denigration of compromises in order to achieve a new degree of harmony and communication between different ideas and ideals. 
We harbor a cynicism, a weariness that threatens to extinguish any spark, smother any flame of conscience. It calls to mind a well known Hasidic story that many have told, including Elie Wiesel, alav hashalom:
When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov
Saw misfortune threatening the Jews
It was his custom
To go into a certain part of the forest to meditate.
There he would light a fire,
Say a special prayer,
And the miracle would be accomplished
And the misfortune averted.
Later when his disciple,
The celebrated Magid of Mezritch,
Has occasion, for the same reason,
To intercede with heaven,
He would go to the same place in the forest
And say: “Master of the Universe, listen!
I do not know how to light the fire,
But I am still able to say the prayer.”
And again the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later,
Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov,
In order to save his people once more,
Would go into the forest and say:
“I do not know how to light the fire,
I do not know the prayer,
But I know the place
And this must be sufficient.”
It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn
To overcome misfortune.
Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands,
He spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire
And I do not know the prayer;
I cannot even find the place in the forest.
All I can do is to tell the story,
And this must be sufficient.”
And it was sufficient.
The story is sufficient only if it leads us to consider the world in which we live, the world we wish to bequeath to our children and our grandchildren. The story is sufficient only if it inspires us to do deeds of lovingkindness, only if we strive to create a new clearing in their forest, a new prayer, a new flame that will banish the darkness of the world. We do a lot of head holding a la Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn. If we don’t get out of our armchairs, then shame on us. As it says in the collection, The Ethics of Our Ancestors, “The day is short, the task is great, the master is insistent. It is not your duty to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it…”
The murder of Yitzhak Rabin will always be one of the darkest days in the history of modern Israel and in the hearts of the Jewish people. I deeply mourn his passing and the potential that died with him. But there must be more than memories and sadness and cynicism. It’s time, in Israel – and in the United States – to get up out of our armchairs. Anything less profanes the memory of Yitzhak Rabin.


It’s the first day of November, the eleventh month of the year. That simple fact is reflected on our smartphones and desktop computers. Perhaps you have a wall calendar with monthly pictures of your favorite breed of dog or cat, or a digital clock on your nightstand glowing out the time and date. Unless 11/1 is your birthday or your anniversary or some other lifecycle event, or if you get paid the first of every month, youre probably utterly indifferent to today’s date.

For our ancestors and for some Jews, up to this very day, a new month is a reason for celebration and prayer. It is always announced at the Shabbat before it arrives. A new month is greeted with open arms.  There are special prayers and rituals and a general sense of gratitude and joy when rosh hodesh comes.

Highlighting the new month has to do with so many things. For one, hearing it announced reminds us of what holidays are coming up. It puts us in the right  mood for the month.

There are deeper connections than that. At its most fundamental level, marking the beginning of every month is about establishing the rhythm of the Universe. It’s the cycle of Jewish time, orbiting around the transcendent presence of God. The beginning of every month coincides with the new moon.

The cycles of Jewish time appear in all spheres of our lives. For centuries, Jewish women have connected the cycle of their bodies with the lunar cycle. Some of the most soulful and innovative Jewish observances come out of women celebrating rosh hodesh. Because women were creating it in a patriarchal framework, these rituals developed quietly, and were kept through oral tradition. That’s been changing over the last 50 years. There are now many groups of women actively connecting for rosh hodesh.

Another significant explanation for marking the new month is that, to quote Steve Miller, “Time keeps on slippin’ into the future.” To say a prayer praising God for this new month reminds us to be grateful for the unspeakable beauty of the world in which we live.

“But”, you may ask, “What about the stuff that drives us crazy, acts of depredation and violence, of hunger and disease?” Yes, that’s there too. And for that reason we are called upon to have faith, and to hope.

We mark a new month according to the arrival of the new moon. The odd thing is that a new moon is essentially not visible.  There are several reasons why it is impossible for us to see the New Moon in the sky. The alignment of the Sun, the Moon, and Earth, leaves the side of the Moon that faces Earth in complete darkness. Technically, this is called a conjunction or Syzygy in the Sun-Earth-Moon system. In addition, the New Moon rises and sets around the same time as the Sun, bringing it too close to the Sun’s glare to be seen with the naked eye.

It’s all about having faith that the new moon is there, even when we can’t see it. We could spend our time in desperation and anxiety, waiting for the first sliver of the waxing moon. Or we just keep going, having faith in the cycle of the Universe, in the rhythm of the saints.

There’s a beautiful tradition called birkat hachodesh: blessing the new month. It is recited outside at the advent of the new month/new moon. It’s not done so much anymore, which is a shame. Because on the night of a new moon, the sky is so dark, yet so filled with stars. It reminds us just how tiny we are – and that we are so lucky, in this moment, to be alive, that everything will ultimately be alright as we are embraced by the Holy One, and by each other.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who by sacred speech created the heavens, and by the breath of Your mouth all of the stars and the planets. You set for them a law and a time, that they should not deviate from their task. And they are joyous and glad to perform the will of their Owner; they are workers of truth whose work is truth. And to the moon You said that it should renew itself as a crown of beauty for those God carried from the womb, as they are destined to be renewed like it, and to praise their realms. Blessed are You God, who renews the months.

There is a cosmic harmony. We live in a Universe of such transcendence. We live: with hope. Keep the faith.

[I am aware of the fact that the tradition of celebrating rosh hodesh is around the Jewish calendar – we welcomed the month of Heshvan 4 days ago. But don’t let that stop you. Put on your coat tonight, walk outside, take a deep breath and look at the sky: find the waxing moon. And say thank you.]

Shabbat Shalom